Road-trip through Florida’s Panhandle

Posted Saturday, May. 31, 2014  comments  Print Reprints

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Pleasantly stuffed from a dinner of batter-fried fresh snapper, hush puppies, coleslaw and turnip greens, my traveling companion and I pulled into a bridge’s toll booth lane and found ourselves inundated by small talk from a cheery attendant.

After grilling us on the particulars of where we’d been and what we’d eaten, she waved us through with a happy weather warning: “Now y’all be careful up there on the bridge with all that wind.” Thanking her, we drove past before allowing our astonishment to show, then shared a grin and said, “Only in the South.”

Indeed, the Florida Panhandle IS the South, with a different flavor and feel than the rest of the state. Locals say that the farther north you go in Florida, the farther south you get — both geographically and culturally, this area is much closer to Alabama and Georgia than to the cosmopolitan metropolis of Miami or the playlands of Orlando.

The soft cadences of northern Florida, Georgia, Louisiana and Alabama are everywhere, and most restaurants offer sweet tea, grits and gumbo.

During the off seasons of autumn and spring, substantial discounts found at hotels, restaurants and shops are accompanied by less humidity, highs of about 80 degrees, warm ocean temperatures and a marked shortage of crowds.

These are among the least developed and cleanest beaches in the world, consisting of unspoiled windswept sand dunes, vegetation and wildlife. Seventeen salt and freshwater lakes and the Choctawhatchee Bay add a wealth of beauty and recreational waterfront.

Inland areas are heavily wooded with pine forests and hardwood hammocks.

The beach sand is clean, as white as sugar and even more powdery, and pleasantly cool even when the afternoon sun is relentless. The water is marvelous: coke-bottle green and so clear you can see tiny sea shells on the bottom and little fish darting around your toes.

This part of the Gulf is famed for its deep-sea fishing, with abundant cobia, snapper, grouper, blue and white marlin, and more.

We started our Panhandle journey in Franklin County, near Tallahassee, the state capital.

And they’re off

This area is known as Old Florida and encompasses the so-called Forgotten Coast.

Driving south on Florida 319, we noticed hand-lettered signs for boiled peanuts. For some, it’s an acquired taste, but we found them warm, salty and addictive — and quickly integrated the habit of buying small bags at roadside stands into our trip

Our first stop was Apalachicola, a delightful historical gem. With a rich maritime heritage, spectacular seafood (oysters galore are famed worldwide) and more than 900 historic sites, the pretty little hamlet charmed us into a blissfully slow pace.

Apalachicola’s authentic character and still-alive past is everywhere, and you’ll enjoy walking its wide, tree-lined streets and viewing the old brick and granite cotton warehouses, the working waterfront, and the little shops and cafes. A stop into the Chamber of Commerce produces a Historic Walking Tour map and easy directions.

A must-visit is the Apalachicola Maritime Museum, which runs full-moon boat tours and features a maritime library and exhibits as well as a wooden boat school, paddle and sail training, kayaking, various lectures, and other events.

This summer, the museum plans to launch the Jean Mary, a renovated paddlewheel steamboat that will provide commercial transportation on the Apalachicola River to and from Columbus, Ga.

Just two bridges away lies the sublime, quiet barrier island of St. George, which remains relatively undeveloped with just two small markets, many private homes, five or so small restaurants (a Subway is the only chain establishment), a few shops, three small hotels and one condo complex.

The gorgeous St. George Island State Park is 9 miles long with wide white-sand beaches, clear Gulf waters and a large population of sea birds. In 2011, the beach was ranked No. 6 on the list of Top 10 Beaches in America by Stephen Leatherman, who calls himself Dr. Beach.

Continuing west on U.S. 98, we mostly hugged the Gulf Coast but also meandered into rural areas like picturesque Port St. Joe, where the reward was a succulent barbecue lunch with plenty of sweet tea.

Other explorations included a stop at the St. Joseph Bay State Buffer Preserve, one of the last remaining in Florida, and another in St. Joseph Peninsula State Park, at the tip of Cape San Blas. The cape is a 17-mile-long barrier peninsula known for its spectacular blue-green waters and excellent shelling.

A short detour from 98 will take you to Wewahitchka, made famous in the 1997 film Ulee’s Gold, for the area’s Tupelo honey. This town has harvested the renowned honey for more than a century, and hosts its annual Tupelo Honey Festival each May.

Beyond the beaches

We passed on to bustling Panama City, long famed for its spring break crowds, and found Panama City Beach, another splendidly white-sand paradise on the so-called Emerald Coast.

Beyond the lure of the beach, Panama City offers a bevy of arcades, theme parks, chain restaurants, bars and clubs, and water parks, plus a Ripley’s Believe It Or Not! Odditorium where you can catapult yourself from a giant slingshot, perform karaoke or swim with dolphins. If you’re traveling with teens, this may prove a popular stop.

In nearby South Walton County, 13 beach communities along Florida 30A have committed to preserving their pristine environment, serenity and quality of life. These communities offer 26 miles of a Florida some might think no longer exists.

Fifteen coastal dune lakes await discovery — standup paddleboarding, anyone? — and deliver on the promise of turquoise Gulf waters and white sands.

A highlight is Grayton Beach State Recreation Area. With 1,133 acres of pristine coastal vegetation, an extensive trail system, pine flatwoods, a marsh area and a surprising lack of crowds, it is consistently rated as one of the best beaches in the nation by the University of Maryland’s Laboratory for Coastal Research.

Other parks to put on the itinerary include Topsail Hill, a 1,600-acre state park marketed as the state’s most pristine and environmentally protected piece of coastal property, and Deer Lake, a rustic park just east of Seagrove Beach with 1,700 acres of old, unmarked trails meandering through native vegetation.

A little shopping

At the western point of the Panhandle, we found Pensacola, with more gorgeous, uncrowded beaches. Pensacola has its share of sophisticated urban dining options as well as cultural attractions and a rich military and naval living culture.

We logged an afternoon in the Seville Square Historic District, enjoying heritage lessons about the five flags that have flown over the city and marveling at the Old World feel of its brick streets, restored homes with filigreed balconies and wide walkways lined with enormous live oaks, magnolias and flowering bushes.

Topping it off, we hit Pensacola Beach, located on Santa Rosa Island, where the famed 1,471-foot-long Pensacola Beach Gulf Pier required a visit. .

Our entertainment stops there included The Wine Bar; Bodacious Brew, a unique coffee shop; and The Bodacious Olive, a destination of its own with olive oils, vinegars and more from every corner of the globe.

This part of Florida offers a delightful road trip with exquisite ocean views and tranquil beaches dotted amid cities with scenic, historical neighborhoods and a wealth of recreational activities. It’s one of the increasingly few spots in the country that still feels “different,” with a rich culture and ambiance all its own.

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